Skip to main content

Full text of "Men Of Mathematics"

See other formats




'OH, we never read anything the English mathematicians do.'
This characteristically Continental remark was the reply of a
distinguished European mathematician when he was asked
whether he had seen some recent work of one of the leading
English mathematicians. The "we' of his frank superiority in-
cluded Continental mathematicians in general*
This is not the sort of story that mathematicians like to tell
on themselves, but as it illustrates admirably that characteristic
of British mathematicians - insular originality - which has been
the chief claim to distinction of the British school, it is an ideal
introduction to the life and work of one of the most insularly
original mathematicians England has produced, George Boole.
The fact is that British mathematicians have often serenely
gone their own way, doing the things that interested them
personally as if they were playing cricket for their own amuse-'
ment only, with a self-satisfied disregard for what others,
shouting at the top of their scientific lungs, have assured the
world is of supreme importance. Sometimes, as in the prolonged
idolatry of Newton's methods, indifference to the leading
fashions of the moment has cost the British school dearly, but
in the long run the take*it-or-leave-it attitude of this school has
added more new fields to mathematics than a slavish imitation
of the Continental masters could ever have done. The theory of
iavariance is a case in point; Maxwell's electrodynamic field
theory is another.
Although the British school has had its share of powerful
developers of work started elsewhere, its greater contribution to
the progress of mathematics has been in the direction of origi-
nality. Boole's work is a striking illustration of this. When first